Asian golf has taken off in the men’s game, and South Korea has decided to finally get in on the action. While they undoubtedly have had a significant contribution to the PGA Tour over the past few decades, they are taking an even bigger step forward this week with something they have not done until now: hosting an event.
The picturesque Club at Nine Bridges on South Korea’s Jeju Island, one of Asia’s best-kept golf secrets, will be the venue of the inaugural CJ Cup at Nine Bridges this week, the second-event of a three-tournament Asian swing.
The field of 78 talented players, including Justin Thomas, Jason Day, Adam Scott, Patrick Reed, and many natives of the host country, will attempt to capture a special place in the inaugural event this week.
The tournament is already set for the next 10 years, and if men’s golf in that region continues to skyrocket, it could be around well past then. Being the first champion would be a tremendous honor.
HISTORY: THE CJ CUP
The CJ Cup at Nine Bridges has a history going all the way back to, well, this year.
A brand-new event on the PGA Tour, The CJ Cup has been inserted into the PGA Tour schedule as the second tournament of a three-week Asian swing, preceded by the CIMB Classic in Malaysia and proceeded by the WGC-HSBC Champions in China.
Hosted by The Club at Nine Bridges on Jeju Island, just south of the Korean Peninsula, The CJ Cup will offer an impressive $9.25 million purse to its 78-man field, a field featuring an eclectic mix of American and Asian players, in addition to a few European and Aussie stars.
Jeju Island is no stranger to big-time sports, having hosted the World Cup in 2002. The island also played host to the European Tour’s Ballantine’s Championship (at the Pinx Golf Club) for three years, from 2008-2010.
The Club at Nine Bridges is a former site of an LPGA event that was the first ever held in golf-rich South Korea. The course holds an excellent reputation in international golf, being South Korea’s only course ranked inside the world’s top 100.
Tournament: The CJ Cup at Nine Bridges
Course Name: The Club at Nine Bridges
Where: Jeju Island, South Korea
Distance: 7,196 yards, par 72
Architect: Ronald Fream & David Dale
Winning Share: $1,600,000
FedExCup Points: 500 points
TV & ONLINE
Round 1: 10:00 PM – 2:00 AM (Golf Channel)
Round 2: 10:00 PM – 2:00 AM (Golf Channel)
Round 3: 10:00 PM – 2:00 AM (Golf Channel)
Round 4: 10:00 PM – 2:00 AM (Golf Channel)
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STORYLINE 1: SEASON OPENER FOR NOTABLES
The new PGA Tour season is already in its third week, but aside from Phil Mickelson and Justin Thomas, the big names have not yet made their season debuts (and maybe a few others, depending on your definition of “big names”).
For several, that will change this week, as the following are slated to tee it up in the inaugural South Korea event:
When Jason Day made his first appearance last season (which he did at the Tournament of Champions in January), he was the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world, and was coming off a two-year stretch with an incredible eight victories and $17.5 million in earnings.
One season later, things are much different.
The 29-year-old Day was one of, if not the, biggest disappointments of this past season as injury and personal conflicts were culprits in a zero-win season, with just five top 10s and $2.9 million in earnings.
He did seem to find his stride late in the year, as three of those top 10s came in his last five 2017 starts, and he made the Tour Championship despite entering the FedExCup Playoffs at No. 47 in the standings.
Now ranked 9th in the World, Day is hoping to build off that late momentum and make the 2016-17 season an anomaly.
Speaking of disappointing Aussies who have been No. 1 in World at one point, Adam Scott barely registered in this most recent season.
Entering just 16 events, Scott had just four top-10s, zero top-5s and was never really in the leader mix at a single tournament – a big surprise given the high standards the 13 time PGA Champion has set.
That being said, the 37-year-old traditionally plays well early in the season, and still has the iron game to thrive at a second-shot course like Nine Bridges.
With Jason Day and Adam Scott failing to reach expectations, Marc Leishman picked up the slack for The Land Down Under in 2017, putting together the best season of his nine year career.
Leishman won twice on the season. First at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March – one of the strongest fields among non-majors, and then again when he dominated the BMW Championship, the third leg of the FedExCup Playoffs just last month.
With a 62-64 start, Leishman looked nearly unstoppable in his latter victory, and put himself into a position where he controlled his own FedExCup destiny at the Tour Championship.
The 33-year old was unable to recreate that BMW magic at East Lake, finishing T24 in the 30-man tournament, and then went winless for the International Squad at The Presidents Cup (0-3-2). But overall, Leishman asserted himself as one of the better players on Tour this past season.
It came several years later than expected, but the much-delayed and much-anticipated rookie season of Patrick Cantlay was nothing short of a rousing success.
Cantlay was able to put aside his prodigious injury history and make the cut in all 13 events he entered, notching four top 10s, including a runner-up finish at the Valspar Championship.
The 25-year old made the FedExCup playoff field despite having only competed in nine regular season events. The former UCLA star played himself into the Tour Championship by finishing T10, T13, T9 in the first three playoff events.
Cantlay was a tee-to-green monster last season, and if he can stay healthy, he looks like a lock for at least a few future spots on U.S. Ryder and President Cup teams.
Patrick Reed was one of those more surprising winless players last season, and he did not really take the big step forward that many expected.
Still, Reed had some great moments, especially as of late, finishing runner-up at the PGA Championship and T6 at the Dell Technologies Championship.
The 27-year old was also a beast at the Presidents Cup, teaming up with Jordan Spieth in a heavyweight duo that went 3-0-1 for the winning American side.
STORYLINE 2: NATIVE KOREAN GOLFERS
South Korea has become an absolute powerhouse in women’s golf, a fact well-illustrated by the eight South Korean women in the top 15 of the Rolex Rankings, the female equivalent of the Official World Golf Rankings.
The Korean men, however, have been lagging behind. Their profile dramatically increased when Y.E. Yang overtook Tiger Woods to win the 2009 PGA Championship, but they have had few victories since, and they currently have just one member ranked among the top 75 in the world (No. 41 Si Woo Kim).
The CJ Cup at Nine Bridges was pitched and added largely from a desire to improve South Korea’s standing on the PGA Tour, and as a result, many were invited to play at Jeju Island.
Here are some of the more notable South Korean entries:
Sangmoon Bae would likely be much more highly-regarded in the golf world had he not missed the past two PGA Tour seasons, due to mandatory military service in South Korea.
Prior to his absence, his career trajectory was strong as he had captured PGA Tour wins in 2013 and 2015 and reached as high as No. 27 in the world rankings.
Now, playing golf once again, the 27-year old is hoping to make up for lost time, and the CJ Cup will be his second PGA Tour start (fourth start overall) since he fulfilled his military obligations.
Bae missed the cut at the season-opening Safeway Open after shooting 73-75 in his two rounds.
K.J. Choi is the greatest male golfer in South Korea’s history, and it just would have felt wrong to have held this tournament without Choi in the field.
The South Korean golf icon has eight career PGA Tour victories, but none since 2011, as the now 47-year-old’s game has fallen off dramatically in recent years.
In 25 starts this past season, Choi made just 11 with only three finishes inside the top 25. He earned only $292,000 on the season and has dropped to No. 433 in the world rankings.
Still, he should be an extremely popular player this week, and perhaps the extra fanfare will allow him to turn back the clock a bit.
Sung Kang is a Jeju native, and coming off a T3 finish at last week’s CIMB Classic, he figures to be in the mix again this week.
The great play in Malaysia was much needed, as Kang had been struggling since a T5 at the Quicken Loans National in early July.
The 30-year-old undertook a very busy schedule last season, making 32 starts, which paid off well, as he made nearly $2 million and finished 45th in the final FedExCup standings.
SI WOO KIM
At just 22 years old, Si Woo Kim was the youngest player at the recent Presidents Cup, although he did not play well for the losing International side.
His 2017 victory at THE PLAYERS Championship was probably the biggest South Korean win since Y.E. Yang’s 2009 PGA triumph, and he’s shown incredible flashes of talent (he already has two PGA Tour wins), but he was also very, very bad for about 90% of last season.
Last week in Malaysia, Kim finished with a 12-over final score which placed him 77th in the 78-man field.
Another 22-year-old, Jeunghun Wang already has three victories on the European Tour. He has yet to make an impact in a PGA Tour event (although he has only made nine starts), but he might very well be the future of South Korean men’s golf.
STORYLINE 3: PAT PEREZ’S REBIRTH
There was seemingly nobody more surprised that Pat Perez won last week’s CIMB Classic than Perez himself, who admitted that he did not think he was going to win coming into the week.
Given how he’s played over the past 12 months, however, it should not have been a huge surprise to anyone else.
Since coming back from shoulder surgery at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, the 41-year-old has played the best golf of his 15 year career, notching two of his three career victories, with seven top 10 finishes and just three missed cuts in 27 events.
Perhaps what was most impressive about Perez’s win in Malaysia was how comfortable he looked playing with the lead.
Coming into the final round with a three-shot lead after a sizzling third-round 8-under 64, Perez carded birdies on three of his first four holes and made clutch par putt after clutch par putt down the stretch.
As an exceptionally easy-going personality, Perez is unlikely to suddenly start putting too much pressure on himself, and a repeat performance at the unfamiliar Nine Bridges could very well be coming.
Sometimes the ability to not take one’s self too seriously can be the difference in these kind of events, and few are better in that regard than Pat Perez.
OTHER NOTABLES IN THE FIELD
At No. 4 in the world, the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year, and FedExCup Champion, is the highest-ranked player in the CJ Cup field.
Thomas was largely favored to complete the first three-peat since 2009-2011 going into last week’s CIMB Classic as the two-time defending champion, but a surprisingly pedestrian first three rounds led to a surprising T17 finish.
The 24-year old’s final-round 67 was encouraging, however. And if Nine Bridges plays as easy as some are predicting, Thomas has as much ability as anyone in the field to go low.
Xander Schauffele avoided any kind of Tour Championship hangover in Malaysia. The reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year followed up his marquee East Lake victory with an impressive T3 at the CIMB Classic.
A final round even-par 72 was a bit disappointing after he was sitting in second place through 54 holes, but Schauffele has now reached the level where he is considered a top threat anywhere he tees it up.
A T58 in Malaysia was not the season debut Ian Poulter was seeking, especially coming off a tremendous bounce-back 2017 season.
Still, the 41-year old Poulter did finish T11 at the European Tour’s British Masters two weeks prior, aided by impressive play from fairway to green.
The short track at Nine Bridges, along with the island’s propensity for brutally windy conditions, should suit Poulter’s game to a tee.
A runner-up finish at the CIMB Classic was Keegan Bradley’s best finish since 2014, giving hope that the game of the former PGA Champion might finally be rounding back into championship form.
Bradley was bogey-free over his final two rounds at Kuala Lumpur, and could not miss on Sunday, hitting all 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens.
Another week, another high finish for Paul Casey, whose T7 finish at the CIMB Classic was his sixth finish of seventh or better in his last nine tournaments.
The 40-year-old has faced harsh criticism for his difficulties closing tournaments, but that was not an issue last week in Malaysia, as a first-round 77 made sure he would not have a lead to squander.
Ernie Els was abysmal in 2017, making just seven cuts in 20 starts, and a T35 at the AT&T Byron Nelson was his only finish inside the top 50. The Big Easy also ranked terribly in nearly every stat other than putting.
It is forgivable for Els, since he is 47 years old (not everyone can be Phil Mickelson), but he has given very little reason to believe that this next season will be any better.
Still, in a new event, and on a course the field is largely unfamiliar with, the experience of the four-time major champion could be an enormous asset.
Tony Finau took last week off, but started his new season with an impressive runner-up finish at the Safeway Open.
The long bomber got a little shaky when he suddenly grabbed the Sunday co-lead in Napa, carding a double-bogey 6 on the very next hole despite driving with an iron. But Finau has consistently been on the leaderboards as of late, and a second career victory is looking imminent.